The Reinvention of CC Sabathia

Replacing Ivan Nova, both now and later
Yankees option Matt Daley to Triple-A
(Scott Halleran/Getty)
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

As you know, last season was the worst of CC Sabathia‘s career. By a lot. He was legitimately one of the worst pitchers in the game after being no worse than comfortably above-average for the better part of a decade. Sabathia’s ability to bounce back — not necessarily to an ace, just to something better than terrible — is pretty important to the team’s chances to contend this summer, even with Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda throwing so well early on.

Sabathia’s first four starts this year have been a mixed bag but they have gotten progressively better: six runs in six innings, four runs in six innings, four runs in seven innings, and two runs in seven innings. He has pitched very well early in his last three starts before allowing some runs in the later innings. There have definitely been multi-inning stretches where he was in total control, but we’ve yet to see an entire start like that. Hopefully it’s coming soon.

Unsurprisingly, Sabathia’s oft-discussed velocity did not bounce back this year. It never does. Once velocity goes it tends to stay gone. His four-seam fastball has averaged only 89.6 mph in his first four starts, down from 91.3 mph last year. I suspect that will tick up a little bit in the summer months as it usually does. How has Sabathia attempted to compensate for his missing heater? By simply throwing it less. He has de-emphasized his four-seamer. Look at his pitch selection courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Four-Seamer Sinker Slider Changeup Cutter
2009 44.5% 16.8% 19.9% 18.9% 0.0%
2010 45.1% 15.7% 22.2% 17.0% 0.0%
2011 45.3% 13.4% 27.2% 14.1% 0.0%
2012 39.4% 14.8% 32.1% 13.7% 0.0%
2013 42.3% 14.9% 27.5% 15.2% 0.0%
2014 30.1% 27.4% 24.0% 16.4% 2.2%

Sabathia has incorporated a cutter this season but he rarely uses it, only a handful of times per game. He is throwing slightly fewer sliders and slightly more changeups, but nothing crazy. That’s probably a function of the small sample size more than anything. The big difference comes with the fastballs. Sabathia is throwing way fewer four-seamers than at any other time with the Yankees and he’s throwing a ton more sinkers, basically twice as many as he threw from 2011-13. That’s a big difference.

Sabathia is not necessarily using fastballs less, but now he is cutting them and especially sinking them more often. That doesn’t make him unique either. Not even close. That is an adjustment most veteran pitchers will make later in their careers. From Chris Cwik:

The added movement is likely one of the reasons we’ve seen veteran pitchers start using the sinker more often, according to PITCHf/x guru Harry Pavlidis. “As you lose velocity you need to add something,” says Pavlidis. “Movement is a good choice. So you’ll have older pitchers who lose velocity and adjust, or guys who are fringy and realize they can get a new edge, even if their velocity is still intact.”

Former major-league pitcher Brian Bannister agrees. “As pitchers lose the capability to throw powerful four-seam fastballs they have to compensate somehow,” Bannister said. “If you look at most of the pitchers who are still around as they get older, they are throwing sinking fastballs and not power fastballs because it matches up with how their body feels.”

Sort through the list of pitchers who have used the sinker the most since 2011 and they are almost all veterans in the second half of their career. Jake Westbrook, Derek Lowe, Jason Marquis, Kyle Lohse, Hiroki Kuroda, Bronson Arroyo, guys like that. Sabathia isn’t throwing his sinker as much as those guys just yet, but don’t be surprised if he creeps closer and closer to the top of that list in the coming years. It only makes sense to shelve the straight four-seamer in favor of the sinking sinker as the radar gun readings become less impressive.

Emphasizing the sinker is not the only adjustment Sabathia has made early this year. He is also pitching inside more often. According to the truly amazing Baseball Savant, Sabathia has come inside to right-handed batters with 29.5% of his pitches this year. That is up from 25.8% last year and 24.2% from 2011-13. (He’s only faced 12 lefty batters this year so I won’t even bother with those numbers.) I remember Mike Mussina (or maybe it was David Cone) saying that you have to pitch inside more when you start to lose velocity, and Sabathia has done early in 2014.

Between the increased reliance on his sinker and busting righties inside more often, CC has changed his pitching style in a tangible way so far this year. He had to after last season. The velocity isn’t coming back and adjustments had to be made. I’m guessing this is just the start of those adjustments too. We might see more sinkers, more cutters, and more pitches inside as the season continues and he gets more comfortable. The progressively better starts might be an indication of that.

Because of who he is and his importance to the Yankees, everything Sabathia does this season will be watched closely. At least by me. I’m somewhat fascinated by the way pitchers age in general, going from hard-throwing youngsters with big stuff to savvy veterans who rely on their brains as much as their arms. Sabathia was not a “thrower” these last few years, the guy knows how to pitch, but that doesn’t mean adjusting to reduced velocity is easy. Throwing more sinkers (and cutters) and pitching inside appear to be tangible changes to his approach this year, changes he needs to make at this point of his career.

Replacing Ivan Nova, both now and later
Yankees option Matt Daley to Triple-A
  • Yangeddard Solarte

    His outing vs Tampa was the first time he pitched and didn’t just try to throw. He can’t just be a thrower like Mike Pineda anymore. He has to learn how to pitch like Hiroki has for years. Too many miles logged on that arm.

    CC and Hiroki should not be given as long of leashes this year. With BGDP, Warren, Delin and now Preston in the pen you have guys that can go multiple innings to bridge the gap. There’s no reason these old veterans should be overextended and be pitching 200+ innings anymore.

    • nycsportzfan

      I agree with Hiroki, but not CC. CC’s got a free and easy pitching motion, and is still young enough, to give you 7plus innings, and hes a big strong guy as well. Kinda like David Wells, those big guys tend to be able to be innings eaters even when there older. Also, see Bartolo Colon.

  • JLC 776

    I’m starting to get really excited to watch CC pitch again – first time in years. It’s fascinating to me to watch veteran pitchers try to redefine themselves; to try to figure out if there will be a twilight to their career or if their career is just going to summarily end.

    • nycsportzfan

      I think working with Andy Pettitte is gonna ease the transition for CC from hard throwing pitcher, to savvy vet pitcher.

  • TheRealGreg

    I remember when he pitched against the Angels in the ’09 ALCS, his changeup was absolutely lethal. It would come in like a fastball inside and then all of the sudden slow down and hit the outside corner on a RH.

    • JLC 776

      He was such a stud that ALDS and ALCS. I kept thinking, “Oh yeah, this is what it’s like to have an ace!”

  • Dave

    How does that pitch selection mix compare to Andy Pettitte’s end of his career?

    Seems like CC’s following a very similar “need to mix the soft stuff in” that Andy had the last few years of his career.

    • vicki

      big drop-offs in fourseamer frequency after his unretirement and again between 2012 and 2013. andy, of course, leaned more and more on his cutter.

  • Ivan

    I was of the few people that felt that CC Sabathia can bounce back from his bad 2013. People have to realize that most pitchers like CC or Mussina who had overpowering stuff and start to lose it as they older is a huge adjustment. It’s takes you maybe a year us, for a pitcher like CC or Mussina to get accustom to their current stuff and what works and what does work. Remember when Mussina had that dreadful 07 season and got off to somewhat to slow start in 08, many people (heck including myself) thought Moose was done. However, Moose figured it out and was terrific. Moose is one of the brightest pitchers I’ve ever witness and it took him a year plus to make those adjustments. I think CC can do the same. I think CC has a good amount in the tank, he just gotta continue to make adjustments to see what he is capable as a pitcher at this point of his career.

    • New Guy

      Shouldn’t you be with Dr. Andrews? Focus on yourself dude.

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    “I’m somewhat fascinated by the way pitchers age in general, going from hard-throwing youngsters with big stuff to savvy veterans who rely on their brains as much as their arms. Sabathia was not a “thrower” these last few years, the guy knows how to pitch, but that doesn’t mean adjusting to reduced velocity is easy.”

    Not only do I 1000% agree, but I share you fascination here.

    I know he is a smart enough pitcher to do it. The question remains how well can his body do it. So far, I’m encouraged.

    Few things Yankee-wise would make me happier than a few more good years out of an amazing Yankee pitcher like CC.

  • Frank

    Agree with the premise of this post. His days as a power pitcher are over. That said, I’m not all that optimistic moving forward. In the end, I see his final season’s numbers being similar to last season. He’s definitely the weakest link in the rotation except for perhaps the mystery 5th starter who will take Nova’s place.

    • JLC 776

      I don’t think there’s any major reason to be pessimistic yet, either. As the (admittedly, very early) numbers show, he is adjusting his approach – and it’s a couple of years overdue. The straight moving fastball is being replaced with breaking stuff, and the change-up, which isn’t as effective without a hard fastball, is being dialed back as well. If he develops the right kind of control, there’s no reason he can’t be a solid, middle-of-the-rotation guy.

      But the first step is to admit there’s a problem and make a change, and I’m confident that part is at least happening right now.

      • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

        “I don’t think there’s any major reason to be pessimistic yet, either.”

        RAB: Where Pessimism Finds a Home

        • mustang

          Isn’t that the truth, but then again that’s living by the numbers. This was the place where Mussina was a “dead moose” and Andy was done 9/2008.

          • vicki

            it’s also the place where the 2013 yankees were going to the world series.

            • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

              Yeah that was a common sentiment around here. Not. Were you paying attention?

              • mustang


                Nope it was a lot easier to point to the sky most of season waiting for it fall thread after thread then saying i told so in the last week of the season.

                • mustang

                  i told you so

      • jjyank

        Really just one year over due though. In 2012, he had a 3.38 and a 3.33 FIP in 200 IP in 2012. Hardly a need for an adjustment.

        It does seem like he is making an adjustment though, and that’s great to see. I thought he looked pretty good out there in his last start.

  • TWTR

    In line with throwing more sinkers, both his GB/FB and his GB% are up a lot this year: 2.21/1.33, 54.5/45.4 2014/career, respectively.

    • forensic

      It sure would be nice if they had a better infield defense though. And if every one of his real mistakes wasn’t hit 500 feet (I know, that should drop over the course of the season, but it’s still not reassuring given the upward trend of his HR/9 the last several years)

      • TWTR

        It would, and that is why I have said that I would prioritize improving the infield over any other area, both in terms of trades and dollars allocated for free agents, and the focus would be on acquiring younger players.

  • W.B. Mason Williams

    It sure does seem like someone is going to claim the “staff ace” moniker this year. Last year it was clearly Kuroda, but I’m talking long term, either Pineda or Tanaka. Both obviously have the potential.

    At the same time, I’m encouraged by CC’s early season efforts. Toward the end of his outings is still a problem but, as it has been said, it’s a learning process. If anyone can do it, it’s CC.

    For all the good we did for our rotation this year, the chance of Kuroda leaving and Nova not being an option (ineffectiveness and injury), it sure feels like we’re back to square one with the rotation.

    • forensic

      I don’t see any way that Pineda is a candidate for the ‘staff ace’ moniker when he’s not even allowed to reach 100 pitches in a game and in some way or another is being limited in his innings.

      Tanaka? Sure, no problem with that.

      • W.B. Mason Williams

        Steven Strasburg was the staff ace his rookie year even when he was injured.

        • forensic

          And Scott Feldman is the staff ace of the Astros this year.

          You really going to use 90-100+ loss teams as your standards? Strasburg is a different animal than Feldman as a pitcher, of course, but he wasn’t there for more than half the season and also never passed 100 pitches, meaning he’s not able to eat innings and you’re not the nominal ‘staff ace’ if you’re not even there.

          • vicki

            this old chestnut? y’all know by now that the definition of Ace is fluid and subjective.

        • CS Yankee

          So a rook’, who is injured can be a staff ace?

          I doubt even a Scott Boras can’t sell that logic.

          His junior year (when he was shut-down) he was ace-like but still not the ace. Zimmermann was their ace, if they had one.

  • Joe D.

    “As you know, last season was the worst of CC Sabathia‘s career. By a lot. He was legitimately one of the worst pitchers in the game…”


    Of the 139 pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, Sabathia was 51st in WAR last year at 2.7…that’s above average, and that;s above average among a group of pitchers who were specifically good enough to get 100 innings pitched in the first place.

    In no way was Sabathia “…legitimately one of the worst pitchers in the game…” and neither was he particularly close.

    • Joe D.
    • forensic

      So, you’re going to use a WAR that is based on a ‘theoretical’ FIP and that gives extra credit for pitching innings AND then plummet the base of pitchers you’re including down to guys who threw only 100 innings?

      Among 81 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title, CC ranked 76th. He was also 71st in ERA+. Even all the other numbers (HR/9, H/9, FIP, etc.) he was still in the 60-70’s range.

      • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

        CC was awful but don’t discount innings pitched. It’s a legitimately important part of a SP.

        • forensic

          When they’re awful innings, less can be more (better).

          • Preston

            If he didn’t throw them, somebody worse would have.

            • forensic

              That’s not necessarily true. Just because they don’t have the cache of the CC Sabathia name doesn’t mean they would pitch worse than him.

        • pft2

          More innings more runs now with CC. His mistakes get hit for HR now. He is lucky he is a LHP’er and not a RHP’er in this park

          AJ Burnett could give innings too, just not the kind you wanted

      • Joe D.

        Hold on a second there. RAB clearly said “one of the worst pitchers in the game”, and certainly not “one of the 81 pitchers who pitched well enough to throw 162 innings and therefore qualify for the ERA title.” If you’re going to evaluate their statement fairly, you should certainly be looking at a far wider universe than “guys who pitched 160 innings.”

        Further, using ERA is patently ridiculous. You are comparing CC against pitchers in the other divisions, the other league, other ballparks via a metric that ignores the effect of all three? And does nothing to adjust for quality of competition whatsoever. CC pitches in a sharp hitter’s park, in the American League with DH, and 13 of his 32 starts were against the top 5 run scoring teams in baseball. You choose a metric that accounts for none of that.

        “Even all the other numbers (HR/9, H/9, FIP, etc.) he was still in the 60-70?s range.”

        All other numbers? Oh really?

        Among qualifiers, as you for some reason think is appropriate:
        K/9 44th of 81
        BB/9 48th of 81
        GB% 46th of 81
        xFIP 45th of 81

        I guess when you say “all other numbers”, you mean only those you feel like looking at.

        I said before, I’ll say it again, and it’s not really up for debate. Saying CC Sabathia was “one of the worst pitchers in the game” last year is hyperbolic bullshit.

        • forensic

          Mike typically specifies it with the comparison to starting pitchers (comparing starters to relievers is even more absurd than what you’re trying to accuse me of) so that’s what I went off of. Further, I also gave you ERA+ which does account for almost all of the things you mentioned. Third, you chose your rate stats which aren’t even the ones I mentioned.

          You want to believe he was an above-average pitcher last year? Be my guest, but I’d love to know what might actually qualify as a bad pitcher then.

  • Andrew j

    I miss pettitte

  • Kevin

    Interesting, but Nolan Ryan’s fastball went UP when he got older, but so did Clemens, Mike Stanton, Kenny Rogers, Andy Pettite….. Must have been all that running…….